Robert Browning

I have a soft spot for Romantic Era poets, like Browning and Keats. There I fully admit this. For me, Robert Browning, though he was a poet in his own right, will always be the husband to Elizabeth Barrett Browning (who wrote Sonnet 43: How Do I Love Thee?) for me. The poem I have selected, I’ve never read before, and thankfully there was a lot of information on it. 

It’s called My Last Duchess and is an “Ekphrasis, which means ‘Description’ in Greek. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning. A notable example is “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” by John Keats.” The poem is a fictional account of the Duke of Ferrara during the Italian Renaissance showing a painting of his dead wife as a beautiful young woman to some visitors (the emissary of a Count and also us as the readers) and then tells her story. As the guide for the poem states,  “Using conversational couplets and telling punctuation, Browning gives us a study of violence, a test of the rivalry between words and images, and a battle between the male and female gaze.” The SparkNotes discussion of the text has this to say about how the poem engages the reader “The poem calculatedly engages its readers on a psychological level. Because we hear only the Duke’s musings, we must piece the story together ourselves. Browning forces his reader to become involved in the poem in order to understand it, and this adds to the fun of reading his work. It also forces the reader to question his or her own response to the subject portrayed and the method of its portrayal.”

My Last Duchess 

BY ROBERT BROWNING, 1842
FERRARA
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, 
Looking as if she were alive. I call 
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands 
Worked busily a day, and there she stands. 
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said 
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read 
Strangers like you that pictured countenance, 
The depth and passion of its earnest glance, 
But to myself they turned (since none puts by 
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I) 
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst, 
How such a glance came there; so, not the first 
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not 
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot 
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps 
Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps 
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint 
Must never hope to reproduce the faint 
Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Such stuff 
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough 
For calling up that spot of joy. She had 
A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad, 
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er 
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere. 
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast, 
The dropping of the daylight in the West, 
The bough of cherries some officious fool 
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule 
She rode with round the terrace—all and each 
Would draw from her alike the approving speech, 
Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked 
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked 
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name 
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame 
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill 
In speech—which I have not—to make your will 
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this 
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss, 
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let 
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set 
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse— 
E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose 
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt, 
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without 
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands; 
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands 
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet 
The company below, then. I repeat, 
The Count your master’s known munificence 
Is ample warrant that no just pretense 
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed; 
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed 
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go 
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though, 
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, 
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
Advertisements

Elinor Wylie

I’ve been trying to discover some new poetry during this April’s National Poetry Month, and I just recently discovered Elinor Wylie’s poem, Wild Peaches. In the poem, the poet/novelist dreams of a simpler life that she describes season by season. I liked the visual imagery of the poem, that is both lush and a tad depressing/despondent at the same time, like “we’ll swim in milk and honey till we drown” and “We’ll trample bright persimmons, while you kill Bronze partridge, speckled quail, and canvasback.” For a more complete look at the poem and how to teach it, check out the Poetry Foundations’s guide. The poet herself lead a rather interesting life with multiple marriages and affairs, and died of a stroke at age 43 after a lifetime of high blood pressure and migraines. Her poetry, which I’m sure were heavily influenced by her unconventional life, discussed her dissatisfaction with the realities of life. 

Wild Peaches

BY ELINOR WYLIE, 1921
 
                                  1 
When the world turns completely upside down
You say we’ll emigrate to the Eastern Shore
Aboard a river-boat from Baltimore;
We’ll live among wild peach trees, miles from town,
You’ll wear a coonskin cap, and I a gown
Homespun, dyed butternut’s dark gold color.
Lost, like your lotus-eating ancestor,
We’ll swim in milk and honey till we drown.
The winter will be short, the summer long,
The autumn amber-hued, sunny and hot,
Tasting of cider and of scuppernong;
All seasons sweet, but autumn best of all.
The squirrels in their silver fur will fall
Like falling leaves, like fruit, before your shot.
                                  2 
The autumn frosts will lie upon the grass
Like bloom on grapes of purple-brown and gold.
The misted early mornings will be cold;
The little puddles will be roofed with glass.
The sun, which burns from copper into brass,
Melts these at noon, and makes the boys unfold
Their knitted mufflers; full as they can hold
Fat pockets dribble chestnuts as they pass.
Peaches grow wild, and pigs can live in clover;
A barrel of salted herrings lasts a year;
The spring begins before the winter’s over.
By February you may find the skins
Of garter snakes and water moccasins
Dwindled and harsh, dead-white and cloudy-clear.
                                  3 
When April pours the colors of a shell
Upon the hills, when every little creek
Is shot with silver from the Chesapeake
In shoals new-minted by the ocean swell,
When strawberries go begging, and the sleek
Blue plums lie open to the blackbird’s beak,
We shall live well — we shall live very well.
The months between the cherries and the peaches
Are brimming cornucopias which spill
Fruits red and purple, sombre-bloomed and black;
Then, down rich fields and frosty river beaches
We’ll trample bright persimmons, while you kill
Bronze partridge, speckled quail, and canvasback.
                                  4 
Down to the Puritan marrow of my bones
There’s something in this richness that I hate.
I love the look, austere, immaculate,
Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones.
There’s something in my very blood that owns
Bare hills, cold silver on a sky of slate,
A thread of water, churned to milky spate
Streaming through slanted pastures fenced with stones.
I love those skies, thin blue or snowy gray,
Those fields sparse-planted, rendering meagre sheaves;
That spring, briefer than apple-blossom’s breath,
Summer, so much too beautiful to stay,
Swift autumn, like a bonfire of leaves,
And sleepy winter, like the sleep of death.

Chris Harris

I discovered Chris Harris’ book of children’s poetry, I’m Just No Good at Rhyming and Other Nonsense for Mischevious Kids and Immature Grown-Ups, when I was browsing new books a few months back but it was always on hold. I waited until about a week ago and finally managed to procure a copy. Publisher’s Weekly is calling him “a worthy heir to Silverstein, Seuss, and even Ogden Nash.” Both my son and I really enjoyed reading aloud his zany poems about anything and everything under the sun, and Lane Smith’s illustrations go perfectly with the poetry. 

Image result for I'm no good at rhyming

My son’s favorite was The Old Woman Who Lived in Achoo, which you can recite with two people. My favorite poem in the book was I’m Shy on the Outside, which reminded me of well, me and a couple of guys I know. 

I’m Shy on the Outside

by Chris Harris, 2017

 

I’m shy on the outside, but inside my head?

I’m not shy at all–I’m outgoing instead.

 

I’m chatty, I’m witty, I’m often hilarious,

Funny and friendly and downright gregarious.

 

Ask me about me–I’ll say, “I’m a cutup!

Sometimes? I can’t even get me to shut up.”

 

Even though out here I’m minimal-worded, 

Deep down inside? I am so extroverted!

 

I’m the life of the party here under my skin.

So keep knocking–

Someday I might let you in. 

 

Joseph O. Legaspi and January Gill O’Neil

I was looking up poems on divorce when I found this one. I just like visual imagery of it. Legaspi was born in the Philippines and moved to the US at age twelve. He currently lives in NYC, and works at Columbia University.  In 2004 he cofounded Kundiman, a nonprofit organization serving Asian American poetry.

Joseph O. Legaspi

My Mother’s Suitors
Joseph O. Legaspi, 2017
The moment my mother tells me she’d fallen out of love
with my father, the Santa Ana winds still
for a wingbeat second and the lemon trees
shudder in the backyard, their fruits falling
in a singular hushed thud.
It is a quiet shaking. I sit across
from her at the kitchen table, a man
now, new to shaving. The knowledge
is no revelation to me, not a throbbing secret
made flesh, not a downy egg sac of spiders,
rather, for years, this lovelessness skulks
in our household like mice with bellies full of rice.
How did I earn this disclosure, and why
after a slippery-fingered dinner of sweet pork sausages
and sliced tomatoes swimming in fish sauce?
The Santa Ana resumes its torturous blasting.
My mother then speaks of past suitors:
those who brought her gifts of rose water,
sugar cane, and summer melons; the jetsetters
who promised her the lavish gems of Kona
and Hong Kong; lovers who mastered the rhumba’s
oceanic waves, the tempter’s hipsway of the tango.
It is astonishing what sustains a person,
what we live on, how my mother has blossomed
with age, as she savors her secret history.
I can’t help but envision her by a window,
leaning into the night as her serenading suitors
gather below her, surrounded by sampaguitas,
luminous children in moonlight.

I discovered the next one by looking up poems on eating, and one of the ones it came up with was this gem about one of my favorite Southern foods, okra. It is awesome fried with some cornmeal but is also great in curry. The author was born in Norfolk, Virginia though she now lives in Massachusetts. She is, according to this bio, “the executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, O’Neil also serves on the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ board of directors and teaches at Salem State University.”

January Gill O'Neil

In Praise of Okra
January Gill O’Neil, 2009
No one believes in you
like I do. I sit you down on the table
& they overlook you for
fried chicken & grits,
crab cakes & hush puppies,
black-eyed peas & succotash
& sweet potatoes & watermelon.

Your stringy, slippery texture
reminds them of the creature
from the movie Aliens.

But I tell my friends if they don’t like you
they are cheating themselves;
you were brought from Africa
as seeds, hidden in the ears and hair
of slaves.

Nothing was wasted in our kitchens.
We took the unused & the throwaways
& made feasts;
we taught our children
how to survive,
adapt.

So I write this poem
in praise of okra
& the cooks who understood
how to make something out of nothing.
Your fibrous skin
melts in my mouth—
green flecks of flavor,
still tough, unbruised,
part of the fabric of earth.
Soul food.

Catherine Barnett

I found this poem under Aging, which is interesting as I’m not sure it’s even about that, but rather the pursuit of knowledge. The author is a modern American poet, who according to the American Academy of Poets, “works as an independent editor and as Writer-in-Residence at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan where she teaches writing to mothers in the shelter system. Barnett has been the Visiting Poet at Barnard College and teaches at the New School and New York University.” The title refers to the branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, 

and limits of human knowledge and justified belief.

Epistemology

Catherine Barnett, 2017

Mostly I’d like to feel a little less, know a little more.
Knots are on the top of my list of what I want to know.
Who was it who taught me to burn the end of the cord 
to keep it from fraying?
Not the man who called my life a debacle, 
a word whose sound I love.
In a debacle things are unleashed.
Roots of words are like knots I think when I read the dictionary.
I read other books, sure. Recently I learned how trees communicate, 
the way they send sugar through their roots to the trees that are ailing. 
They don’t use words, but they can be said to love. 
They might lean in one direction to leave a little extra light for another tree.
And I admire the way they grow right through fences, nothing
stops them, it’s called inosculation: to unite by openings, to connect 
or join so as to become or make continuous, from osculare
to provide with a mouth, from osculum, little mouth.
Sometimes when I’m alone I go outside with my big little mouth
and speak to the trees as if I were a birch among birches.

Lord Byron

Today I have chosen Lord Byron because he had such a rich vocabulary and wrote such beautiful poetry, especially when talking about love and beautiful people, which got him into a lot of trouble in his brief thirty-six years of life. Here is a link to full-text version another of his very famous unfinished poems, Don Juan, which was a witty satire and based on his travels to Italy. Here is an interesting article from 2002 about the real reason he had to flee England in the late 1810s. 

Image result

She Walks in Beauty
George Gordon Byron, 1788 – 1824

I.

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

II.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling place.

III.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

W.B. Yeats

I know next to nothing about Yeats except he was an well-to-do Irish family and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. But I liked this poem that I found while browsing the Academy of American Poets website, and it alludes to Yeats’ unrequited love Maude Gonne, an Irish revolutionary and known beauty. I like it because it has a bittersweet context and meaning. 

Image result for analysis of wb yeats when you are old

When You Are Old
W. B. Yeats, 1865 – 1939
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.